By Dave Ongie
Few would have begrudged former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen if he had taken a victory lap during his visit to the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy last Tuesday.
After all, as ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland pointed out, the independent college that rests on a quiet corner of the VA Mountain Home Campus owes its existence to Bredesen and former ETSU President Dr. Paul Stanton.
“This college would not be here were it not for his leadership and his vision,” Noland said. “So partially today was an opportunity to say thank you to the governor and for him to see the legacy that has been established at Gatton.”
But instead of taking a victory lap, Bredesen opted to take a seat between Stanton and Noland in a conference room inside the College of Pharmacy building. And even though politicians are wont to pontificate on the issues – especially during a heated campaign – Bredesen, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat Bob Corker is vacating, spent nearly 90 minutes on Tuesday morning peppering the faculty and staff of the Gatton College of Phramacy with questions regarding the opioid epidemic and listening intently to their answers.
“This opioid crisis is a huge problem in this state, and I think some of the very best work in the country is being done here at ETSU,” Bredesen said after the roundtable discussion wrapped up. “I wanted to come here and learn about it from the experts, and I’m really glad that Tennessee has something of this quality. The stuff they’re doing here ought to be very widely known across the nation.”
Bredesen is hoping to join a Senate that is currently mounting a response to a national public health crisis that has hit the state of Tennessee particularly hard. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who holds Tennessee’s other seat in the U.S. Senate, made a similar trip to Johnson City in early April to meet with judges, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, politicians and educators in search of real-world solutions to the problem.
At that time, Alexander was touting the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, legislation he co-sponsored. Since his visit, the bill was approved unanimously by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and has been added to the legislative calendar.
Like Alexander, Bredesen was clearly on a fact-finding mission when he came to Johnson City last week to probe the faculty and staff of the pharmacy school for the latest information on effective treatment methods for those addicted to opioids.
Bredesen was briefed on treatment options, which included an update on the effectiveness of medication-assisted treatment, but he was clearly most excited about some of the ideas presented during the roundtable that focused on preventing addiction.
“I think prevention is always the best. It’s less expensive and has far less human cost, obviously. My first line of defense has always been prevention.”
Bredesen mentioned employee assistance programs designed to give workers a low-barrier, confidential way to seek help quickly before a small struggle with opioids becomes a full-blown addiction as a proactive approach. He was also excited about some measures designed to curb the overprescription of opioids.
“I come to this process of running for Senate out of an executive background,” Bredesen said. “I’ve been CEO, mayor or governor, so I tend to think of these things in terms of ‘I want to do something’ as opposed to ‘let’s do a study or let’s pass a law.’ I got some good ideas here today about how you might really make some changes that would especially help people not get hooked in the first place.”
Dr. McKenzie Calhoun, an assistant professor at the college, told Bredesen an effort has been made to change the culture among doctors in our area when it comes to prescribing opioids. She cited the progress Ballad Health has made in reducing the amount of opioids prescribed at its hospitals.
“We started an opioid task force here about two years ago, and we’ve seen a 40-percent reduction in the prescription rate for opioids in the hospitals,” Ballad CEO, president and executive chairman Alan Levine said during Alexander’s visit to the Niwsonger Children’s Hospital in April. “Our ERs have a 26-percent lower rate of prescription for opioids than the national average, and this year, we’re seeing about a 17-percent decrease from even prior years.”
While progress is being made, an overriding theme during last week’s roundtable was that the opioid epidemic is too big of a problem to be solved through legislation or education alone. As Alexander admitted while talking about his bill, a “moonshot” from Capitol Hill won’t be enough.
“There’s not one single profession that alone can combat this epidemic,” Noland said afterward. “It’s physicians, it’s pharmacists, it’s physical therapists, it’s occupational therapists, it’s educators. All facets of the community are involved in outreach, treatment and prevention.”